To some, sport is the most significant thing in the world. Indeed, one of the most famous statements ever made about football asserts that “it’s not life and death; it’s more important than that”. That’s the notion embraced by Naziha Arebi’s brave documentary Freedom Fields, which explores the life and struggles of a group of female footballers in Libya during the immediate aftermath of the 2011 revolution that led to the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. We check in on the characters at various intervals across five years as they struggle to get their sport recognised and valued in their homeland.
The film kicks off – more terrible football puns to come – a year after the revolution with the characters hoping for a “sweet beginning” as they prepare for a tournament in Germany featuring six Arab countries. Halima – a fun-loving goalkeeper with touching affection for the music of Adele – and strong-minded striker Fadwa are in the midst of the campaign to get the team its first competitive match, despite the fact the unit has existed for a decade. Conservative thinkers, however, deride the team’s efforts as “immoral westernisation under the pretext of women’s freedom” and armed military men monitor their training sessions.
Freedom Fields stands as a frustrating and inspiring story of young women standing up to oppression that exists solely as a result of unquestioned tradition. This is a world in which it’s entirely normal to have to question whether the booming noise in the middle distance is gunfire or a firework and in which girls are expected to choose marriage over sporting independence. These are women who have faith that their country will eventually turn around, but find their cause constantly dismissed as an irrelevance.
Arebi, though, is keen to ensure that this isn’t simply two hours of misery and allows the personalities of the central girls to come through. Their goals are simple, but seemingly unachievable. All they want is the chance to play, even if they’re not the most talented out on the pitch and can’t even field a full team. When their coach bemoans the fact they haven’t even had time to practice the offside rule, it’s a mark of the charming simplicity of the goal at play. This isn’t about sporting excellence. It’s about sport as a clear metaphor for freedom.
The most baffling thing here is that the majority of public opinion seems to be in the girls’ favour. In the movie’s most touching moment, members of the public turn on car headlights to surround the pitch when the power supply to their floodlights is cut midway through a training session. Fadwa also finds herself set upon by officials when she gives a media interview in which she is critical of the powers that be. A scared establishment is the only real obstacle to getting these girls on the pitch where they deserve to be.
Freedom Fields is a tough and tumultuous tale that doesn’t shy away from its complex issues, but it has such an inspiring core that it’s impossible not to get behind these amazing women. When Halima roars with pure ecstasy from her goal line after their team finally knocks the ball in the net, it’s difficult not to join her. This film both shoots, and scores.
Dir: Naziha Arebi
Cast: Halima, Fadwa, Naama
Prd: Naziha Arebi, Flore Cosquer
DOP: Naziha Arebi
Music: Katya Mihailova
Country: UK, Libya
Run time: 97 mins
Freedom Fields is in UK cinemas from 31st May.